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Sharing more than a plot of land

A Manitoba project yields some food for recent immigrants, but also helps them connect with their roots and their new community

Enez Naso (l) and Koulan Fendi were among the group practising farm skills from their native Iraq.

Canadian farmers have a reputation for being willing to lend a hand to those in need, whether it’s a neighbouring farmer or someone halfway around the world. One Manitoba farm family recently provided ample evidence of that willingness by allowing some recent immigrants to practise their potato-growing skills from their homeland.

Brothers Ross and Roy Tufford offered up a patch of land on their family farm in the Rural Municipality of Portage la Prairie last summer as part of a pilot project organized by Operation Ezra, a non-profit group that helps Yazidi refugees who have resettled in Winnipeg. The Yazidis were subjected to particularly brutal ethnic cleansing by Islamic State in northern Iraq. They are regarded as one of the oldest religious and ethnic minorities in the world. As a result of more than 700 years of persecution, their numbers have dwindled from 23 million people at one time to around 700,000 today.

To date, Operation Ezra has privately sponsored 55 Yazidi children and adults to come to the Manitoba capital and has helped them settle in their new home. Two years ago, the group expanded its focus to help government-sponsored Yazidi people here who didn’t have access to the same level of support as their privately sponsored peers.

With limited resources at their disposal, volunteers with the multi-faith grassroots organization began looking at ways they could augment the food supplies they were already providing to newcomers without spending a lot of additional funds. One of the volunteers, Megan Sodomsky, suggested that since many of the Yazidis came from farm backgrounds that perhaps they could grow their own food and offered up a tract of land at her family’s grain farm in Portage for them to use.

Operation Ezra volunteers and Yazidi refugees harvested 700 pounds of potatoes that went to the families and other needy recipients in Winnipeg. photo: Supplied

“My uncle (Roy) still lives on the family farm so I wasn’t sure how he’d feel about strangers descending upon his property a couple of times a year,” she recalls, laughing. “But him and my dad were really gung-ho about it. They were actually quite excited about it.”

After some discussion, it was decided that potatoes would be the best crop to grow on the 8,000-square-foot piece of land since they wouldn’t require irrigation or regular tending.

More than saving money

In June, Sodomsky’s father and uncle dug a trench with their tractor while the Yazidi families and Operation Ezra volunteers planted nearly 300 seed potatoes by hand. In October, they returned to farm where they harvested, cleaned and distributed about 700 pounds of mostly russet potatoes to 36 government-sponsored families.

Sodomsky says one of the most gratifying aspects of her family’s involvement in the project was seeing the reactions of the Yazidi volunteers during planting and harvesting.

“This was really just to save some money to begin with,” she says. “But when everybody was out at the farm it became obvious it was a little more than that to them. They really enjoyed being out there and had plenty of questions for my dad and uncle about farming in Canada. It was really interesting to see how much they enjoyed doing it.”

Operation Ezra volunteer Nafiya Naso, who has helped many of the Yazidi newcomers settle in Winnipeg through her job with Jewish Child and Family Services, says all of the people she spoke to who participated in the potato project had nothing but positive things to say about it. Many farmed a variety of crops, including potatoes, in their native Iraq.

“They really, really enjoyed the opportunity because they felt like it was something that was very close to home for them because that’s what they did for a living, that’s what they’ve done all their life,” she says. “It was really, really touching to them to be able to do that kind of work here (in Manitoba). It kind of opened up a door for these people to let them know that there are opportunities that they can farm if they want to.”

Michel Aziza, who helped launch Operation Ezra in March 2015 through the group Winnipeg Friends of Israel (WFI), says he was initially skeptical about the project when he was first approached with the idea but was thoroughly convinced of its merit by the time it wrapped up.

“Initially I thought that’s not going to solve the problem we have. But I tell you, I take it all back. One of the best things we did with Operation Ezra was this potato-farming experiment,” he says. “It’s a good story of them being able to go back to their roots. It’s what they know. They were able to grow food and give back to their community, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet.”

Engaging with the community

Aziza says one of the unexpected benefits of the project was how it helped a number of the Yazidi newcomers become more engaged with the community here.

“Younger people are doing extremely well here. Most of them are in school or working. The older group has been a bit of a challenge. We’re excited about them (becoming more engaged),” he adds.

The potato project was so successful that Operation Ezra volunteers have begun planning to continue it and perhaps even expand it next year. Sodomsky and her family have already informed the group the same land would be available next year. Volunteers have also begun looking into the availability of land in or near Winnipeg that would be more accessible for newcomers and allow them to plant non-root crops such as tomatoes or cucumbers.

Operation Ezra began as a small, grassroots program with support from Winnipeg’s Jewish community including the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg, Jewish Child and Family Service and Shaarey Zedek Synagogue. It has since grown to become a multi-faith initiative comprised of 28 agencies, churches, synagogues and businesses and is the only organized Yazidi rescue effort of its size in North America.

In addition to providing support to newcomers in Winnipeg, Operation Ezra plays a role in increasing general awareness about Yazidi people and its advocacy work was part of efforts that helped convince the Trudeau government to bring 1,200 government-sponsored Yazidi refugees to Canada.

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